March 16, 2018

One Book, Well Done

BIG DEAL Marketing drives city read participation. (top-bottom): Dearborn PL readers were “wild” about the kickoff for its 2014 Big Read; Kansas City PL chose True Grit in 2013; and Seattle PL branded its program with an iconic logo

BIG DEAL Marketing drives city read participation. (top-bottom): Dearborn PL readers were “wild” about the kickoff for its 2014 Big Read; Kansas City PL chose True Grit in 2013; and Seattle PL branded its program with an iconic logo

Organizations in every state in America, plus the District of Columbia, have hosted a communitywide reading program at one point or another, according to the Library of Congress. So-called One Book programs are everywhere. (Visit to see all the programs listed by author.)

However, to engage the entire community, whether municipality, county, region, or state, successfully in a community­wide reading event takes planning as well as skill and enthusiasm. LJ spoke with reads veterans from around the country to learn what worked for them—and what could work for your library.

Pick the right book

“We think the right book is key to the program’s success and is often the reason One Book programs fail,” says Chris Higashi, program manager at the Washington Center for the Book at the Seattle Public Library (SPL), which pioneered the public library community­wide read with the 1998 launch of Seattle Reads. Higashi created the program, previously known as If All Seattle Read the Same Book, with former Washington Center for the Book executive director Nancy Pearl.

That may be because “a good book for discussion is not the same thing as a good book to read,” Higashi points out. “Good books for discussion tend to share certain characteristics: they’re well written; explore basic human truths and raise universal themes with which readers can identify; and have three-dimensional characters forced to make difficult choices that sometimes make sense and sometimes don’t, whose decisions can cause disagreement among readers.” That element spurs conversation. “To encourage broad participation, we need a title with sufficiently broad appeal, relevance to our own community, and one that raises ample questions to sustain a discussion,” she adds. As such, a title that makes a great One Book for one locale may not be right for another. Nonetheless, other library’s picks can be a place to start: Goodreads maintains a list of communitywide reads choices at

Seattle Reads in particular also seeks “a ‘user-friendly’ author, one who likes to engage with readers. Not every author is comfortable interacting with the public,” Higashi observes. Unlike other programs profiled here, Seattle Reads only features the work of living writers, who participate in the process.

For the Dearborn Public Library (DPL), MI, 2014 Big Read, “We tried to pick a book that would be of interest to the local schools and to the Henry Ford [Museum],” says Henry Fischer, adult services librarian. “Ask your partners for input on which title to pick. This will give them more buy-in to the program.” Fischer also suggests selecting a book that can be enjoyed by younger readers as well as adults, both boys and girls, and is “a quick read, so it may appeal to nonreaders and nonnative speakers” of English. The three-branch system ended up choosing Jack London’s The Call of the Wild, which met all those criteria; its Big Read events drew a total of 3,388 people.

Book choice should also be informed by the program’s stated goals. Forging connections with local residents is a central aim of Pittsburgh’s Community College of Allegheny County (CCAC)’s Big Read. “Our books have been excellent vehicles for us to participate in authentic community outreach,” says Barbara Evans, CCAC’s associate dean of academic affairs and Big Read project director.

For instance, CCAC’s choice for its 2014 program, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, allowed the college to partner with the city’s Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum, Pittsburgh-area Carnegie libraries, and several local schools to host more than 40 events related to O’Brien’s collection of short stories about soldiers during the Vietnam War. In addition to showing documentaries on the war and hosting panel discussions with veterans, CCAC facilitated book conversations and activities at the State Correctional Institution Pittsburgh and the county’s Shuman Juvenile Detention Center. In total, about 1,500 books were purchased and distributed, and an estimated 2,541 people participated.

Finally, planners may also want to consider one very specific aspect when choosing a title: geography. Wayne Hanway, executive director of the 15-branch Southeastern Public Library System of Oklahoma (SEPLSO), recommends that librarians not underestimate the relevance and importance of local authors and topics of interest: “Know your state’s authors and any books that have been written about your area,” he advises. SEPLSO, which serves 34,223 current borrowers in seven counties, chose Charles Portis’s True Grit for its first ever Big Read in 2013. Much of the novel takes place in what is now Oklahoma, and its setting was essential to its selection—and to the program’s popularity.

Planning for programming

The right book alone, however crucial, won’t carry a One Book campaign to a successful conclusion. What else makes a community­wide reading program successful? “Knowing what you want to achieve, whom you want to reach, and how the program will benefit your library and community will help you make several decisions,” says Higashi: “what book and author to feature, the program series to develop, community partners to engage, funders to approach, how to evaluate ­success.”

For instance, Seattle Reads’ goals are to “deepen appreciation of and engagement in literature through reading and discussion.” To meet these goals, programming includes “an author residency of up to five days, with events in branch libraries and the community as well as at Central, books for book groups, and hundreds of books for individual patrons to borrow informally,” Higashi explains. “We commission Book-It Repertory Theatre (a local theater company) to adapt and present staged readings of excerpts from the book.” Current total Seattle Reads participation is about 4,000, but perhaps, more important, surveys at select 2014 Seattle Reads events revealed impressive engagement with the work selected: over 80 percent of respondents had read the pick, Richard Blanco’s For All of Us, One Today: An Inaugural Poet’s Journey. SPL Foundation’s 2014 Final Grant Report also noted that close to 88 percent said they planned to read more of the author’s work, nearly 90 percent were very likely to take part in 2015 Seattle Reads events, and close to all participants discussed the book with others.

The benefit extends beyond the library: SPL reports that Seattle Reads titles become best sellers at local independent bookstores, too.

The publishing game

Planners should also think about ways to incite interest among target audiences. For DPL, school involvement was a major component of its Big Read. Dearborn Public Schools incorporated the book into its curricula, and students designed a tabloid featuring the entire text of the novel, original illustrations, and a calendar of Big Read events. (Please note that The Call of the Wild is in the public domain; using the complete text of a book that is still under copyright without permission could land a library in legal hot water.) Twelve thousand copies of the tabloid were printed and distributed to local schools, businesses, and organizations and via the library. A 72-page downloadable PDF, as well as audio and text versions, was also available. The library is currently in the process of publishing Call of the Wild Dearborn: Animal Tales, a community anthology featuring stories, poems, and essays about animals, nature, and wildlife.

Sacramento Public Library (SPL), CA, took this approach one step further. As reported in One Cool Thing [LJ 3/1/14, p. 30], SPL combined work in the public domain with content contributed by a local author to create the book used for its reading program.

The right pace

SEPLSO had success with events that encourage physical participation, including reenactments of the murder of True Grit character Frank Ross, parades, and a True Grit–themed pie contest that it held in addition to the more traditional book discussion groups, film screenings, and lectures. The novel’s plot also inspired the publication of Crookbook, a collection of campfire-set recipes from residents. Printed in-house, the run of 400 copies yielded 377 sales.

SEPLSO’s ambitious 135-event program was an “undoubted success. The programs and events reached hundreds of people who weren’t aware of the book and had paid little or no attention to library programs and activities in the past,” according to its Big Read Final Report Narrative. In fact, “I’m going to estimate that our total attendance for the Big Read of almost 7,600 is at least ten times greater than we had for a program series in any one previous year,” Hanway notes.

Thoughtful scheduling also helps, according to Kaite ­Stover, Kansas City Public Library (KCPL), MO, Big Read project director and a 2003 LJ Mover & Shaker. The ten-branch system, which serves 250,000 people, also chose True Grit for its six-week 2013 Big Read. “We examined the calendar and carefully chose a time frame that would work well with the local arts scene and capitalize on an annual Kansas City tradition, the American Royal,” says Stover. (This popular series of fall events celebrates the region’s agricultural heritage.)

KCPL’s program included the photo exhibit “What True Grit (Might Have) Looked Like: The Photographs of F.M. Steele” and a concert by Kansas City musicians Jeff Harshbarger and the Revisionists, which featured original music inspired by the era and the novel. KCPL worked hard to set up events to entice, not overwhelm. “We wanted to space out the Big Read events and keep the topics lively, varied, and interesting to avoid Big Read ‘fatigue,’ ” Stover explains.

The approach worked: KCPL’s Big Read had more than 15,000 participants, including attendance of 1,327 at 13 special activities. Circulation of True Grit during the program was 3,253, with 552 people taking part in 56 book discussions.

Spreading the words

Communitywide reads are one of the prime library programs for outreach to residents who have rarely or never used the library. As such, marketing and deeper local involvement are crucial to making sure you’re not just throwing a party for the usual suspects.

USE Social Media “Social media, in the form of Facebook, was particularly important to our marketing. It’s quick, easy, and timely and essentially free. We would not have had nearly the turnout that we got for our programs without it.” This statement comes from SEPLSO, but the value of free and easily accessible social media sites in promoting areawide reading programs was not lost on any of the library systems in this article: KCPL created two True Grit Pinterest boards, which each boast 3,029 followers, and DPL’s $40 Facebook ad for its Big Read Kickoff was viewed 17,000 times.

Enlist Local Leaders (and Distant Celebrities) “Approach public officials and other community leaders,” advises Dearborn’s Fischer; their support and participation can provide great publicity. In addition, “Are there any celebrities in your state? Contact them about doing a Big Read program. And even look for celebrities beyond your borders: audiobook superstar [narrator] George Guidall and Alex London [C. Alexander London], author of the ‘Scholastic Dog Tags’ series, were part of our Big Read, and they live in different cities in New York.”

Collaborate In working with your community, “Ask for feedback, incorporate suggestions into the programming, and acknowledge their efforts,” advises CCAC’s Evans. “I have seen how impacted our partners and volunteers have been from participating in the Big Read program, and they have become an extended community that is valued and respected.”

KCPL’s Stover agrees. “The most important thing KCPL has learned is to look at our community through a lens of reading and consider how we can bring that activity into local businesses, organizations, institutions, and agencies. We want the community to read…the chosen selection, but we also want the community to see the connection a particular work has to them while they rediscover or continue a love for reading.” Such partnerships should extend beyond the traditional library allies like bookstores; for example, SPL had great success partnering its One Book program with a local brewery, which created a themed beer, supplied samples for library events, and hosted a book club in its taproom.

Libraries, or librarians, new to running One Book programs don’t need to reinvent the wheel—or the book club.

The American Library Association’s One Book One Community: Planning Your Communitywide Read provides information on everything from setting program goals to creating book discussion guides and signage; there’s even a toolkit with an expense worksheet. (Download a PDF here.)

If the cost of purchasing enough copies is a consideration, the National Endowment for the Arts, in partnership with Arts Midwest, provides funding for communitywide reads. Big Read participants choose from one of 36 titles, ranging from 19th-century classics such as Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence to contemporary favorites including Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine and the Mexican short story collection Sun, Stone, and Shadows, edited by Jorge F. Hernández. Though the list is not long, the range is wide. (For information about the Big Read grant application process, visit here.)

For school media specialists, the nonprofit Read to Them, which encourages reading to children for 15 minutes a day, offers the One School, One Book/One District, One Book programs. Participating schools receive books from a list of classic and recent children’s titles, suggested timetables, activity materials, and more.

Publishers also offer materials and advice, as well as discount pricing, to help with OneBook programs: if you know the publisher of the book you’re considering, contact the company’s library marketing department.

For ebook readers, there’s OverDrive’s Big Library Read, which provides participating OverDrive libraries and schools with free simultaneous access to a selected title.

Reap and share the benefits

Communitywide reads often introduce readers to books they might otherwise overlook. Seattle Reads, for instance, has built such trust among stakeholders that it has “regular participants from year to year, including book groups that hold open a slot in the spring for Seattle Reads without knowing what book or author will be featured,” according to SPL Foundation’s 2014 Final Grant Report. It also yields new users. “We do know from audience surveys and observation that the program continues to bring new people into the library,” says Higashi.

One Book programs also draw citizens to reading beyond the library. “I have had some local businesses continue to hold book discussions in the workplace because of Big Read–related discussions,” KCPL’s Stover notes.

These responses indicate a need for, and an appreciation of, One Book programs. And the programs show no sign of declining: in the original 2006 Big Read, there were ten community participants; there will be 77 in 2014–15. Their popularity is a testament to their flexibility; community reading programs can last days or months and include as few or as many events as the public (and the budget) can bear. They can be designed to achieve any number of goals, from encouraging a love of reading and bringing local residents together to reaching underserved populations and raising a library’s profile. Successful community reading programs often achieve all these objectives—and more. The results can be as varied and as inspiring as the books selected.

Elizabeth Michaelson Monaghan is a former librarian in the Queens Library system in New York City. She works as an editor at a health website


This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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